PBS’ ‘This Old House’ highlights Detroit rejuvenation

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published April 14, 2017

 Tamiko Polk, left, shows “This Old House” host Kevin O’Connor around the home that she and her husband purchased from the Detroit Land Bank. Its restoration is at the center of the program’s episodes for the next several weeks.

Tamiko Polk, left, shows “This Old House” host Kevin O’Connor around the home that she and her husband purchased from the Detroit Land Bank. Its restoration is at the center of the program’s episodes for the next several weeks.

Photo provided by Cathleen Williamson

DETROIT — For 37 years, “This Old House” on PBS has been showcasing how to take run-down or dilapidated houses and turn them into fresh, livable homes. This spring, the show is featuring Detroit.

The program is showcasing two examples of Detroit’s urban renewal and showing how properties regarded by some as eyesores and lost causes can be anything but. The program’s host, Kevin O’Connor, said that Detroit offers a strange dichotomy for “This Old House” — thousands of homes in need of repair and refurbishment, and unoccupied homes that demonstrate amazing displays of home design and quality.

“We wanted to tell the story of the city’s revitalization through housing: the rise, the fall, the rebirth,” said O’Connor. “There are so many houses that are unoccupied, even though the architecture and craftsmanship in some of these locations is excellent. This was a place that was a middle class utopia, and we’re fascinated by that.”

The two properties being featured on the show were both owned by the Detroit Land Bank.

“The Detroit Land Bank’s mission is simple: to take abandoned and decrepit buildings and turn them into usable properties, either through repair or demolition,” said Craig Fahle, the director of public affairs for the Detroit Land Bank. “We don’t purchase properties, but as a governmental entity we become the property owner of last resort if no one else wants to buy the property at auction. This means much of our properties are places no one else wants, so it becomes our goal to turn them into something someone else will want.”

Those working for the land bank believe that being showcased on the program is the best way they could publicize the work they do and the potential that is present in Detroit.

“It’s showing people how great some of the neighborhoods in Detroit are and what’s being done here,” said Fahle. “It also shows how much progress can be made and how houses that look like they need to be torn down are being turned into beautiful, livable houses. I want the program to highlight that we have some places in the city that are bringing life and vibrancy back to neighborhoods many people have previously left for dead.”

The show will focus on two houses in Detroit for 10 weeks. Episodes began airing March 30; they air Mondays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 9 a.m. on PBS. 

The first house was purchased by homeowners Frank and Tamiko Polk, and “This Old House” will show how the property went from being abandoned to becoming a beautiful reminder of the city’s past and a symbol of its future.

“It’s in the Russell Woods neighborhood built in 1939,” said O’Connor. “Frank and Tamiko went through the land bank. It’s been empty for four years, so it was pretty beat up, but it was relatively intact and was structurally in pretty decent shape. There was a nice fireplace, plaster moldings and casings, hardwood floors, and stained glass windows. The Polks were game to put in the work, and we were game to lend a hand.”

The house required extensive work. 

“We had to do a little bit of everything,” O’Connor explained. “The roof had to be fixed. The mechanical systems had been taken from the house, so they had to be replaced. The plumbing had to be replaced almost everywhere. Extensive electrical work was necessary. We restored the leaded glass windows. There is a new kitchen and two new bathrooms. We restored the hardwood floors. We brought back the fireplace and added some beautiful Pewabic tile. Plus, there was a lot of mundane stuff like fixing the front stoop, repairing drywall and so much more.”

The second home still belongs to the Detroit Land Bank through its Rehabbed and Ready program, which refurbishes and fixes up Detroit houses to sell — often at a loss — in order to strengthen neighborhoods and provide residents with better housing options.

“The other home was built around the same time (as the Polk house) and is more modest and less ornate, but it still showed how beautiful many of the homes in Detroit are,” said O’Connor. “This is more of a side story for us: There are no homeowners here rehabbing it, but we wanted to tell the story of the land bank and its Rehabbed and Ready program, which is trying to get houses back on the market to assist the market and help the city, and use these homes as a buffer to deteriorating neighborhoods. This is a great example of what people are doing to save these homes.”

What surprised O’Connor, and what he said made this project different than all of the others he had worked on in his years as host of the show, was the enthusiasm from neighbors and their eagerness to assist the show’s efforts.

“It was people coming in to help in a way that I haven’t ever seen in my 13 years on the show before,” said O’Connor. “We usually have a general contractor who comes with us with the show. The Polks were going to do all the work by themselves, but as the project progressed, it became apparent that they needed the help. Despite us not broadcasting the location of where we were working, strangers would show up and offered to help. Traditionally, we don’t allow this — and we even try to keep our projects somewhat secret — but as people kept coming forward, we saw they were for real, so we had them take over other roles like the general contractor role or the landscaping role. It was amazing to see this kind of community mentality as part of this project.”

Fahle said these projects being featured on “This Old House” is a significant step, as it is bringing to a national audience how Detroit is bouncing back, and it is doing so thanks to the work and dedication of ordinary citizens.

“Seeing the transformation of these houses is pretty remarkable,” said Fahle. “If you see what they looked like when they started, you will be floored how much has been done for people. Also, it can be done by almost anybody. Ordinary people can take on these projects too. This is a really unique time in Detroit neighborhoods. It could potentially be a great time for people to buy a first home in the city at great prices. We are seeing a lot of really positive change.”